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Internet Explorer 9′s new interface has been revealed following an article published on a site run by one of Microsoft’s Russian subsidiaries. The screenshot was removed almost immediately, but it was too late — the image quickly dispersed throughout the web:

IE9 screenshot

Microsoft has refused to publicly comment about the leak but, if it’s a fake, it’s very good one.

The screenshot shows a minimalistic user interface reminiscent of those implemented by Chrome, Opera and Firefox 4. However, the style and layout of the back/next buttons, address bar and icons will be recognizable to IE8 fans (I’m sure they must exist somewhere?)

All the controls have moved to a single toolbar. It doesn’t leave much room for multiple tabs but it maximizes the web page viewing space. I’m surprised tabs haven’t been moved to the empty title bar area — Mozilla recently determined that tabs above the address bar is a more logical layout.

The Russian website also revealed IE9 would offer a unified search/address bar, a simplified set of toolbar icons, and tear-off tabs which can be snapped to a part of the screen. Windows 7 already offers this last option as “Aero Snap” so it may not be a feature implemented directly within the browser.

The IE9 beta will be released on September 15 2010 so we’ll soon know whether the leaked screenshot is real or not. The final version is unlikely to appear until 2011 so the interface may undergo radical changes before then.

Of course, it could be a Microsoft publicity stunt to raise awareness of the browser. I somehow doubt that — it’s been far more successful than many of their real campaigns! (Did anyone actually attend a Windows 7 party?)

What do you think? Is the screenshot real or fake? Do you like it?

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Do you have a GMail account (who doesn’t?) From today, you may be lucky enough to notice a new “Call Phone” option in your Chat box…

Google Voice

Unlike the existing GMail voice and video chat system, Call Phone allows you to call a standard land-line telephone — the recipient doesn’t need to be logged on or even have a PC. What’s more, calls to the US and Canada are totally free and international calling rates are very competitive (less than $0.02 per minute for the UK, France, Germany, China and Japan).

The Call Phone system uses the same browser plug-in as voice and video chat and it’s available for Windows XP+, Mac OS X 10.4+ and Linux.

Google has announced they’ll be rolling out the feature to US-based GMail users during the next few days. International users and those using Google Apps in their school or business won’t receive it just yet. However, I’m going to let you into a little secret — I’m in the UK and the feature has appeared in my account. It’s possibly because I have “English (US)” set as my default language and, although I’m charged for local UK numbers, calls I make to the US are free! I suspect it’s a technical loophole which Google will plug, but I’d be interested to hear if any other non-US residents have received the feature.

Call Phone looks good and, assuming call quality and low costs can be maintained, Skype has reason to be concerned.

Have you tried the Call Phone feature from your GMail account? How was your experience?

386-google-verizon

Arguments have raged across the web during the past week about the Verizon-Google Legislative
Framework Proposal (read the full document). Opinions range from “it’s great” to “this threatens the underlying foundation of the Internet” and “Google’s gone evil”.

This is my take. The proposal primarily affects US Internet users and, although I’m not a US citizen, the issues will almost certainly affect and/or influence other parts of the world. I do not claim to have unbiased opinions or legal expertise. You may agree or disagree; the discussions will continue for many months — probably years.

What is Net Neutrality?

In essence, net neutrality means all web traffic is treated equally. It does not matter whether the user is downloading a Wikipedia article, a YouTube video, a spam email, or an illegally copied MP3 — no data packet has priority over any another.

The Internet operates under this principal … to an extent. Individual ISPs may restrict your bandwidth or perhaps limit torrent downloads during busy periods. Mobile operators usually operate stricter controls to ensure networks remain responsive: they can — and will — block certain content.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had been negotiating with leading providers to outline a framework for the future regulation of US Internet services. This effort was recently abandoned.

What is the Google and Verizon proposal?

The Verizon-Google Legislative Framework Proposal is a response from both companies to the debate in Congress about the National Broadband Plan and the US Government’s role in the future of the Internet.

Google and Verizon are free to make any recommendations they choose. Both companies have an agenda and neither would make a statement that was not in their best interest. Congress can choose to accept, reject or ignore any proposal and the recommendations are not US legislation. Yet.

The key points are summarized below:

1. Non-discrimination against lawful Internet content
A broadband ISP would be prohibited from preventing user access to lawful content or services. The provider must disclose accurate information about their capabilities and network management. The FCC would be responsible for enforcing consumer protection and can impose fines of up to $2 million for companies violating the rules.

These proposals appear reasonable and received the least attention. However, non-discrimination is limited to “lawful” content without clarifying that term or identifying the policing authority. The flip-side of the proposal is that ISPs could block illegal content.

Laws differ from country to country. Even legal practices in one US state may be outlawed in another. Possible issues include:

  • Sectors such as the entertainment industry could argue that certain types of content breach copyright laws. This could include pirated material or works that mention or are influenced by another.
  • Companies could use legal precedents to block competitor services and gain an advantage.
  • Individuals or organizations could use privacy or other laws to block negative articles.

The proposal could hinder free speech and innovation. In addition, an ISP could be exempt from net neutrality principles if it can claim it’s upholding the law. Even a $2 million fine would be a negligible risk to most large carriers — especially if they can profit from prioritizing content.

Finally, it’s interesting to look back to January 2010 when Google threatened to quit China because its Government blocked content which it deemed illegal. How is this different?

2. Network management
ISPs are permitted to engage in reasonable network management to provide a reliable service, e.g. reduce congestion, ensure security, addresses harmful traffic, etc. Many have latched on to this issue as a direct attack on net neutrality but ISPs already engage in the practice. The proposal states they should be transparent and disclose all network management policies.

The most controversial element is Additional Online Services. In effect, ISPs would be free to offer alternative non-internet services which are “distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service”. These services can make use of the internet and prioritize traffic. The FCC would monitor the systems to ensure they do not threaten the meaningful availability of broadband Internet access.

Services such as health and gaming systems have been mentioned, but it’s difficult to evaluate the effect of alternative networks until they’re implemented. It’s unlikely we’ll see separate commercial networks for websites such as YouTube but it remains a possibility. Few people would want to use a fragmented Internet.

3. Exclusion for wireless
With the exception of service transparency, wireless networks are excused from legislation because of their “unique technical and operational characteristics”. This seems strange and many have speculated a conspiracy: Google could want Verizon to prioritize Android devices.

Wireless networks could become the predominant method of net access over the next few years. If that occurs, what is the point of these proposals? Again, there’s no definition of what constitutes a wireless network. Could a cable ISP put a router outside your house, claim they have a wireless network and avoid legislation?

Overall, I find it strange that Google and Verizon have stepped into the political debate. They may be key players but many of the proposals seem too vague to be workable. At worst, the companies appear to be advocating net neutrality exclusions and have been attacked accordingly. The biggest worry is that Congress will approve legislation without an appreciation of the underlying technical issues.

The debate has just begun.

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Google is scrapping its Wave collaborative messaging service citing a lack of user interest. Google’s senior vice president of operations, Urs Hölzle commented:

Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked. We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects.

Wave’s poor uptake was unexpected. Google wanted Wave to be the next step in online communication evolution: it combined email, chat, brainstorming, scheduling, documentation, tweeting and feeds in a central location. Developers were also provided with an API to create their own collaboration tools and widgets.

Google’s biggest problem: no one understood Wave. Although it received rapturous applause at last year’s I/O conference, the company struggled to explain the concept. Despite numerous videos and a product relaunch in May, Wave continued to confuse and few people recognized the benefits. In our recent poll, 39% of respondents admitted they did not understand the product — a worrying statistic given that SitePoint has a highly-technical audience.

Like many, I tried Wave soon after the launch but soon abandoned it. The early versions were buggy and I couldn’t test the collaborative features because so few others were using it. Other problems included:

  1. Although it was marketed as replacement for email, chat and Twitter, it wasn’t compatible with any of those systems. Wave was a separate messaging tool — you could only use it to contact other Wave users.
  2. The system doesn’t support Internet Explorer. Neglecting 50%+ of the potential market won’t help adoption rates, especially when corporations were a primary target.
  3. Google Buzz overshadowed Wave, raised several security issues and contributed more confusion.
  4. The early hype could only lead to disappointment.

To it’s credit, Google undertakes many risky endeavors but responds quickly and decisively when a product fails. It’s not afraid to admit defeat — many other companies could learn from that example.

Read the full Google Wave blog post…

Are you a Wave user? How will Google’s announcement effect you?

376-uk-ie6-petition

In February 2010, I reported that UK citizens could sign an online petition which demanded Internet Explorer 6 updates across all Government departments. The 6 June deadline has now passed and the Government has posted their response. You won’t be happy — they’re keeping IE6.

It’s a shame but we shouldn’t be surprised. The petition attracted just 6,223 signatures so it was hardly a mandate from the British people. That’s a reasonable number of web designers and developers but, since we’re the main beneficiaries, no one could say it was unbiased.

The petition’s biggest mistake was to cite security as the main concern:

IE6 has some security flaws that leave users vulnerable. These two governments (France and Germany) have let their populations know that an upgrade will keep them safer online. We should follow them.

The issue was too vague and could be accused of scaremongering. The Government’s response:

Complex software will always have vulnerabilities and motivated adversaries will always work to discover and take advantage of them. There is no evidence that upgrading away from the latest fully patched versions of Internet Explorer to other browsers will make users more secure. Regular software patching and updating will help defend against the latest threats. The Government continues to work with Microsoft and other internet browser suppliers to understand the security of the products used by HMG, including Internet Explorer and we welcome the work that Microsoft are continuing do on delivering security solutions which are deployed as quickly as possible to all Internet Explorer users.

Each Department is responsible for managing the risks to its IT systems based on Government Information Assurance policy and technical advice from CESG, the National Technical Authority for Information Assurance. Part of this advice is that regular software patching and updating will help defend against the latest threats. It is for individual departments to make the decision on how best to manage the risk based on this clear guidance.

IE6 has had more it’s fair share of vulnerabilities, but it’s also received a decade’s worth of security patches. In Europe, the browser’s market share has fallen below 3.5% so it’s no longer a high-priority target for hackers. Finally, Government departments have stringent security systems in place: it’s not easy for a user to become infected when they can’t access the outside web.

Perhaps the petition would have had a better chance during less challenging economic times. The final part of the Government response highlights the complexity and cost to the taxpayer:

It is not straightforward for HMG departments to upgrade IE versions on their systems. Upgrading these systems to IE8 can be a very large operation, taking weeks to test and roll out to all users. To test all the web applications currently used by HMG departments can take months at significant potential cost to the taxpayer. It is therefore more cost effective in many cases to continue to use IE6 and rely on other measures, such as firewalls and malware scanning software, to further protect public sector internet users.

The new UK Government has embarked on a massive cost-cutting exercise. Citizens are unlikely to be receptive toward millions spent on IT upgrades of negligible benefit when that cost can be directly compared against job losses, nurses salaries, education and defense budgets.

The problem for us is that 12 months is a long time in Internet years and browser upgrading is easy. Yet most Government IT projects have a minimum timescale of 5 to 10 years and the technologies they adopt are reliable (they’re already old). Even those departments undergoing an upgrade are only just moving to IE7. It’s frustrating but, even if they implemented Firefox 3.6 or Chrome 5 today, we’d be demanding further upgrades within a few months.

Ultimately, you have an easy choice. If you don’t want to develop for IE6, don’t undertake jobs where it’s a requirement.

Read the full UK Government IE6 petition response…